Re­think­ing Pak-Saudi re­la­tions

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Syed Mo­ham­mad Ali

THE Mid­dle East is cur­rently un­der­go­ing a tu­mul­tuous phase in its mod­ern history. The US in­va­sion of Iraq, the Arab Spring and the sub­se­quent up­heaval it un­leashed across the re­gion, and the US-Iran de­tente have com­bined to not only al­ter power dy­nam­ics within and be­tween Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries them­selves, but also with other Mus­lim coun­tries. One ex­am­ple of how changes in the re­gion are al­ter­ing re­la­tions be­tween Mid­dle Eastern and other Mus­lim coun­tries out­side the re­gion is the shift in re­la­tions be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Pak­istan.

Pak­istan has had a close re­la­tion­ship with Saudi Ara­bia for decades. Pak­istan has been the re­cip­i­ent of aid from oil-rich Saudi Ara­bia more than any coun­try out­side the Arab world since the 1960s. Saudi Ara­bia has also been the des­ti­na­tion of choice for a large pro­por­tion of Pak­istani eco­nomic mi­grants. It has pro­vided Pak­istan oil con­ces­sions and di­rect funds to shore up its for­eign ex­change re­serves in times of need.

In turn, Saudis have been re­ceiv­ing mil­i­tary train­ing from the Pak­istani Army and air force per­son­nel. Pak­istan Air Force pilots even flew Saudi jets to repulse a South Ye­meni in­cur­sion into the king­dom's south­ern bor­der back in 1969. Dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s, up to 15,000 Pak­istani troops were sta­tioned in the king­dom, near the Is­raeli-Jor­da­nian-Saudi bor­der. The role of Saudi fund­ing to train mu­jahideen to repulse the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan is also no hid­den fact.

Saudi Ara­bia pro­vided refuge to the cur­rent prime min­is­ter of the coun­try, while he was in ex­ile dur­ing the mil­i­tary rule of Gen­eral (retd) Pervez Mushar­raf. How­ever, some de­vel­op­ments in­di­cate that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the coun­tries is per­haps un­der­go­ing a pe­riod of tran­si­tion and po­ten­tial re­cal­i­bra­tion. One il­lus­tra­tion of such change is the re­cent Pak­istani par­lia­ment's de­ci­sion not to join a Saudi-led nine Arab na­tion ef­fort to quell a Houthi re­bel­lion in Ye­men. Pak­istan's sa­ga­cious de­ci­sion seems mo­ti­vated by its re­luc­tance to com­mit its al­ready bur­dened armed forces to a con­flict out­side its own sphere of in­flu­ence as well as its hes­i­ta­tion to an­tag­o­nise Iran, a re­la­tion­ship which could be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant now that in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions against Iran are be­ing lifted. Our for­eign sec­re­tary also dis­missed spec­u­la­tion that Is­lam­abad would pro­vide Riyadh with nu­clear weapons or know-how in re­sponse to what the Saudis might view as a weak deal on Iran's nu­clear pro­gramme.

Pak­istan's new-found neutrality is re­fresh­ing, given our long­stand­ing em­broil­ment in a proxy con­tes­ta­tion be­tween Iran and Arab states, es­pe­cially Saudi Ara­bia, through their fund­ing of sec­tar­ian madras­sas. Saudi Ara­bian donors have been blamed for pro­vid­ing the most sig­nif­i­cant source of fund­ing to mil­i­tant and sec­tar­ian groups world­wide. Leaked diplo­matic ca­bles of the US sec­re­tary of state in 2009 en­dorsed this view. Since the Tal­iban at­tack on the Army Public School, our gov­ern­ment has re­newed its com­mit- ment to curb for­eign fund­ing of madras­sas. Saudi Ara­bia's role in this re­gard has also be­come the sub­ject of con­tention. Ap­par­ently, Saudi at­tempts to ex­ert in­flu­ence in our ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor are ev­i­dently not con­fined to the madrassa sys­tem alone. A new Wik­ileaks Saudi em­bassy ca­ble in­di­cates how the Saudis got up­set when the pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Is­lamic Univer­sity in Is­lam­abad (IIUI) in­vited the Ira­nian am­bas­sador in Pak­istan to serve as guest of hon­our dur­ing its cul­tural week cel­e­bra­tions.

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